Is Peterson still up for the fight? Photo by Gage Skidmore

March 2, 2021   9 mins

When Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychology professor and author, first published his previous book, 12 Rules For Life, it aimed to encourage readers to impose structure and meaning on lives that lacked purpose and direction. The rules ranged from the sternly moral (“Pursue what is meaningful, not what is expedient”) to the playful (“Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street”).

These resonated strongly with many readers, particularly — but not exclusively — young men. They were augmented by lectures, debates and YouTube videos; the book itself has sold over 5 million copies worldwide, and counting.

His follow-up, Beyond Order, seeks to go further — this time into the necessary balance between “the two fundamental principles of reality”, order and chaos, and their manifestations in authority and creativity, conservatism and change.

As we learn from the preface, it was written in the course of a highly turbulent period which included his daughter’s surgery, his wife’s diagnosis with a terrifying form of cancer and Peterson’s own traumatic withdrawal from benzodiazepine, which triggered severe insomnia, crippling anxiety and a form of incessant restlessness known as akathisia. Under such circumstances — in which both Peterson and his wife felt near to death — it might be considered a triumph to have produced a book at all. The opening rule is, in part, an explicit acknowledgement of how difficult it is to make something, as opposed to tearing it down: “Do not casually denigrate social institutions or creative achievement.”

In the course of his rise to public prominence, Peterson has faced rather a lot of casual, and not-so-casual, denigration himself, along with unusually powerful levels of adoration from those who feel that they have been greatly helped by his books and lectures. The very nature of what Peterson represents — an unashamed didacticism, a strong emphasis on personal responsibility and a dogged resistance to progressive orthodoxies — has made him a kind of human lightning rod for the cultural conflicts of our age.

In Beyond Order, Peterson is reliably thought-provoking, often engrossing and occasionally a little ponderous in style. Indeed, with its careful explorations of myths, symbolism, fictional themes and clinical case studies, it is difficult to comprehend how his latest book reportedly had a number of junior employees at Penguin Random House Canada protesting, and even becoming tearful, at the decision to publish it. But then it is also hard to tell which version of Jordan Peterson, real or constructed, they were primarily reacting to: the author, the Toronto psychology professor, the YouTuber, the Tweeter, the combative debater, the indignant scourge of much left-wing dogma, or — more recently —the public player in a painful and complex human drama of illness and addiction?

Beyond Order, of course, is the creation of Peterson the author, whose words are weighed and qualified, and whose instructional paragraphs seek to strip his readers of their most damaging self-delusions while shoring them up with a measure of empathy. It “explores as its overarching theme how the dangers of too much security and control might be profitably avoided” and how to face fear and harness creativity in a way that is useful.

By way of illustration, Peterson includes a number of case studies from his clinical psychology. In these he comes across as a conscientious practitioner, who listens sympathetically to clients, cares about their recovery and searches for ingenious — if at times unusual — ways to help them.

Among his patients are a young, black, gay man who was psychologically devastated by a violent row with an ex-boyfriend, and a young, white woman emotionally paralysed by the workaday cruelties of the wider world, including the array of death laid out for consumption at the butcher’s shop. In both cases Peterson’s clients needed to come to terms with the troubling aspects of human nature — sexuality, violence and mortality — and wrestle them back into proportion (in the case of the hypersensitive young woman, his recovery plan included accompanying her to watch the embalming of a corpse).

Peterson has a sharp eye for the vagaries of human nature, and he can be a compelling storyteller, especially when narrating his own experiences and those he has observed from life. There is a fair amount of wisdom in Beyond Order, of the kind that used to be called common sense, but which might need restating in an era when views on what constitutes sense are no longer reliably held in common.

A waiter tells Peterson, for example, how helpful his book and videos had been, as a result of which — in the author’s words — the waiter had “changed his attitude toward his comparatively lower status (but still useful and necessary) job”. Instead of despising his job, and himself, he had applied himself as fully as possible, and as a result been promoted three times in six months.

Peterson anatomises the considerable skills and interactions needed to be a successful waiter, from constant attentiveness to fostering good relations with chefs and tricky customers alike. For those who apply themselves to the difficulty of doing such jobs well, Peterson says: “The skills they acquire will be eminently portable.” Perhaps young people used to absorb this kind of nous instinctively when watching and learning from older mentors in practical settings: the farm, the workshop, the restaurant, the factory. No doubt many still do. But for those who may be freshly entering the world of work after an extended period in school and college, where the focus is placed more narrowly on intellectual achievements, it is worthwhile spelling it out.

Peterson is never shy of spelling things out — but then again, it seems that plenty of his readers welcome his didacticism, and if they don’t, why pick up a book with another 12 rules in it? In any case, he’s adept at blending the practical, the personal and the philosophical. Chapters such as “Try to make one room in your home as beautiful as possible” — a progression from his earlier instruction to clean up your room – move into an exploration of the role and transcendent power of art, his own past failure to enjoy the world through the eyes of his small children and an inherently comic run-in with a disapproving university administrator after he hatched a plan to beautify his office with Hammerite paint and wooden panelling.

Yet while the book repeatedly stresses the need for a balance between conservative and liberal forces in society — order and chaos again — its arguments become much hazier on political territory. Peterson’s own experience of the increasingly feverish displays of thought-policing in modern universities no doubt partly informs his impatience with the devotees of ideology. But some of the “-isms” which he criticises — such as socialism, feminism and environmentalism — began as a way of addressing genuine wrongs in the existing society, and often did so peacefully and successfully, which is no small achievement.

It was the practical, patriotic socialism of Clement Attlee, for example, which gave Britain its National Health Service. It was feminist campaigning that secured women votes, equal pay legislation, property rights, financial independence and a network of women’s refuges from domestic violence. Peterson, who makes a convincing case for marriage in general, also vividly acknowledges that failures occur even within broadly beneficial social institutions: “Sometimes, you have married someone who is a psychopathic brute, a congenital and incorrigible liar, a criminal, an alcoholic, a sadist (and maybe all five at once). Then you must escape.”

Yet how exactly might a woman have escaped from such a marriage, say, in the Republic of Ireland of the 1960s, except in the most abject of styles? Up until 1976, a husband could sell or mortgage the family home without the consent or knowledge of his wife. The “marriage bar”, which prevented any married woman from working in the public sector, was not revoked until 1973. And divorce itself was not legalised until 1996. It required a movement to exert sufficient social pressure to alter these things, and the movement required a name.

Today, the feminist movement contains many different strands, some of them seeming to work in opposition. It can often appear now as if useful social action is being supplanted by stunts, relatively trivial shaming campaigns and ideological rows conducted in increasingly jargon-laden language. Energies may arguably be flowing into the wrong place: it is striking, for example, that while so much feminist academic discourse is generated in the US, it remains the only OECD country without a national statutory paid maternity leave. But in a world that still includes FGM, forced marriage, domestic violence, “revenge porn” and a growing normalisation in the West of violence against women during sex, there is surely still a place for a vigorous international movement which explicitly centres the concerns of women and girls.

In his writings and YouTube videos, Peterson speaks engagingly of strategies for self-transformation, with emphasis on bolstering one’s character and moral purpose before taking on the rest of the world: stand up straight, clean your room, do not lie, do not do what you hate. Some of Peterson’s critics find the simplicity and directness of such advice mockable, but I think there is sense in it, and its effect may be more profound than one might initially imagine.

One cannot expect a single book — or even two books — to contain the theory of everything. But since Beyond Order explicitly discusses the tension between the status quo and the necessity for change, one might reasonably ask: how exactly does Peterson think that the change part should be pursued?

Both the rage and the gratitude which flows towards Peterson from millennials and Generation Z, for example, is partly a result of the way in which certain social structures have hardened around them. It is not simply that they have been conditioned to consider their rights over their responsibilities, as he says, although that might well be true. In many cases their passage towards independent adulthood, even to the point of affording a home and supporting children, has been made much more difficult by forces beyond their control. A combination of high house prices and the rapid expansion of an insecure “gig” and freelancing economy has placed many young workers — including highly-educated, middle-class ones — in a financial situation of near-permanent precarity.

Peterson, rightly, warns against resentment, “that terrible hybrid emotional state, an admixture of anger and self-pity”. But even worse than resentment, surely, is misdirected resentment. Much of today’s ideological fury, which plays out on social media, strikes me as a form of generational revenge, whereby language has become the only battleground upon which angry young people can score a decisive victory. We have all now seen the drama unfurl a number of times: a professionally successful person might say something mildly questionable in Twitter, say, or state an opinion at odds with the fast-changing template of what is considered socially acceptable by a vociferous minority. The clamour for their instant ejection from public life begins. Corporations join in because policing the nuances of acceptable speech has become an easy way of signalling solidarity with “progressive” youth and attracting their disposable income. They also find it preferable to paying adequate tax or offering young employees a solid pay and benefits structure that might permit them a more economically secure life.

To some extent, Peterson has turned this implicit modern bargain on its head. His books have proved highly profitable at the same time as he decries the burgeoning call-out culture of the Left. Much of Beyond Order delves deep into myth, embodying chaos in the form of the snake or the dragon. But it is hard to avoid the suspicion that when a younger generation looks at Peterson they find themselves wrestling, not with Grendel’s mother, but with a different archetype: Dad. Some of them, perhaps lacking paternal authority themselves, are clearly heartened by his insistence that they have agency in the world, and must therefore own it. Others are infuriated by his apparent repudiation of the arguments on societal structure that they consider vitally important.

Peterson does not seem a duplicitous person, but rather unusually sincere and emotional. That is, perhaps, what makes him both so testy and so effective when challenged in debate. He operates with a degree of personal courage under considerable stress, and has clearly been wounded, in the past, by the ways in which some critics have made blithely contemptuous suppositions about him. The Canadian writer Tabatha Southey, for example, once dubbed him “the stupid man’s smart person”, a phrase that reeked of intellectual entitlement. But who exactly are these “stupid men” to whom she referred? And if the “smart man’s smart person” hasn’t yet worked out a way to make themselves broadly intelligible to ordinary people, then whose failing is that?

Peterson has an army of loyal online followers, some of whom enjoy framing verbal debate like an MMA fight — “Jordan goes beast mode!” — and there are times when it feels as if Peterson himself (as in the interesting, broadly courteous debate with Helen Lewis) subsequently characterises the interaction as more malevolent than it appeared to many who watched it.

It is natural to like people who are explicitly on your side, especially when you often feel yourself assailed by waves of genuine hostility. Yet there can be more shared values with perceived opponents than this electronic reiteration of opposition allows for. The amplification of bad feeling by commentators on social media can result in Peterson and whoever has publicly engaged with him, particularly women, both feeling bruised by the encounter. And, given his intermittent tendency to depression, the growing visibility of his own, clearly beloved family on Twitter and YouTube — those unpredictable, exposing arenas whose effects we do not yet fully understand — worries me a little.

The alt-Right and its conspiracy theories have recently gained a concerning amount of ground, while much of the volatile energy of the “progressive” Left is now primarily directed not at self-evident bigots and racists, for example, but also at anyone who dares to argue for working in a different style towards a better, more harmonious society. That has stifled actual progress and sucked political energies into the never-ending competitive pieties of the culture wars. But it is also leaving a growing number of liberals feeling alienated from this particular version of left-wing politics. If Peterson is right to be wary of policies that demand enforced equality of outcome, there is surely much common ground to be found in reducing the existing disparities in equality of opportunity — or at least those that can be reduced.

Perhaps Peterson’s next book might engage with the looming question he has left broadly unanswered in this one, interesting though it is. Many institutions contain much that is of value, but we cannot always assume that the “hierarchy of competence” which he talks about is working, especially where the careful sifting of evidence shows that it is not. Governments are repeatedly lobbied by forces that do not always have the best interests of ordinary people at heart, and policy is often corrupted by short-term thinking and responses.

So when things do go awry, what can we agree needs fixing, and how might disparate groups of individuals best co-operate to effect valuable political change? In a world that has come to salivate over the constant drama of a battle, that is one discussion which might really subvert expectations.

Jenny McCartney is a journalist, commentator and author of the novel The Ghost Factory.